92. Eyehategod, ‘Take as Needed for Pain’ (1993)

n the process of reviewing the Rolling Stone Top 100 Metal Albums, I fully expected the following two things to happen:

1. I would run across an album that I prejudged as not being worth my time, and find (to my delight) that I was wrong.

2. I would listen to an album that sounded great, but had a repugnant message.

I didn’t expect both things to happen on the same album.

Number 2 is a big pitfall to being a fan of metal for a few reasons. First, metal is a genre that is often intentionally transgressive. Metal is supposed to be challenging to the ear. Musically, this results in all kinds of things that I love: odd time signatures, impossible tempos, unbearable discordance, and harsh vocals. Thematically, it results in some things I love (gritty realism, nihilism*), and some things I could take or leave (infatuation with horror-movie tropes, satanism). I can ignore a lot of this kind of stuff, because generally, the vocals are so gnarly that lyrics are impenetrable. Then there are some themes that get a hard pass from me: misogyny, homophobia, sexual violence, and racism/national socialism/fascism. Bands that dwell on these kinds of transgressive themes are doing it for the shock value, which is a tedious behavior of edgelord types. Goodness knows that metal is up to its bullet belt in Chuck Palahniuk wannabes. Are these guys trolling away about horrific shit because they want to get a rise out of the listener? Or are they genuine in their misanthropy? You can’t really know, can you? That’s a problem.

Point 1: I did not expect to like this album, and I totally liked it.

For some reason I had formed the impression that this was a nü metal album. The band name is stüpid, and the name of the album is also kind of stüpid. I don’t know. It was an error in judgement. I decided to review it while moving compost from my driveway to the raised bed in my back yard. I couldn’t have chosen a better album for the task; this record is HEAVY, plodding, and seemingly endless. It begins with a gutpunch wail over some very rough hardcore riffage on the song “Blank”. I was hooked in the first 12 seconds. This album is mixed to sound like it was recorded in a garage. The drums sound like they did on 70s records before reverb and noise gates sterilized them: heavy, thumpy, with the kick bleeding into the snare. The guitars are overdriven and the bass is sludgy. The sound is early Sabbath if crack had been widely available in the early 70s, rather than its more expensive older brother, shneef. Having grown up listening to hardcore, I was really comfortable with the vocal style…angry, yelled more than sung. I was also unable to understand much of what the singer was singing. This album is very riff driven, with little in the way of lead guitar. The riffs are grand and for want of a better word, bluesy. Lots of pentatonic usage. Riffs vary from swinging southern gothic dirges, to grinding, sluggish chugging…so unhurried that it at times seems like the tempo fluctuates drunkenly mid-chunk…but such tempo would be nearly impossible to do in the era of the click-track, and especially with such coordination. Not to say that there aren’t lots of drastic tempo changes among song segments which are easier to pull off…there are, and they are dope. My only complaint is that the songs are so similar to each other, the record becomes monotonous after about 30 minutes. Nonetheless, at the end of the first listen, I thought I’d like to put a few of these songs on a mix. So which ones?

Point 2: What the fuck? After finishing my work, I wanted to give it a second listen, but this time with access to the song titles and lyrics. And that’s when things turned gross. A glimpse of some of the song titles (which I won’t put here) was enough to make me feel icky. The lyrics are maybe intentionally incoherent (a common edgelord strategy); this way, if someone were to wag a finger, they could explain it away as part of their dark sense of humor, or even more commonly, a people’s revolt against the politically correct sjws that can’t handle real metal. I guess that’s their right. I was tempted to look online to see how the band defended itself from accusations of racism and misogyny. But then I was like—why? What defense was going to be good enough? Hard pass.

*Say what you will about the tenets of national socialism…

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93. White Zombie, ‘La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One’ (1992)

In Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas, The Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug Band are defeated in a talent contest by the Riverbottom Nightmare Band. The Jug Band represents wholesomeness, honest work, and the simplicity of a country life. The Riverbottom Nightmare band represent excess, confidence, and aggression. The Jug Band plays old timey jug band stuff. The Riverbottom Nightmare band plays hard rock. Or they are supposed to. I guess I may have seen this for the first time at about five years old. I wasn’t especially skeptical, but at the same time I had heard KISS and Alice Cooper (the latter on the Muppet Show of all places). Even at that tender age, I knew that Riverbottom Nightmare Band was bullshit…they didn’t play hard rock, but some shitty puppet facsimile of hard rock for kids. I was not amused.

I can’t pretend that the Rolling Stone 100 Best Metal Albums exist outside of any context in my own life. I’ve heard many of these records and the truth be told, I have FEELINGS for some of them. Yet, I was not looking forward to listening to this album. I didn’t like it when it came out. I don’t like it now. The next band (and their most hyped album) are to metal what The Nightmare Riverbottom Band was to hard rock.

White Zombie was manufactured by Rob Zombie to give him an outlet to be edgy. In 1992, he was as weak-sauce an edgelord as ever espoused libertarianism. The B-horror movie homage had already been mastered by the very sincere, if a-bat-short-of-a-picnic, Glen Danzig. Say what you will about Glen’s musical stylings; he believed in his music. ‘La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One’ was also far from original sounding. Rick Ruben had managed to invent southern Goth rock with Danzig’s first solo album. The riffs on La Sexorcisto often follow that formula and otherwise largely yoinked from other bands—albeit mostly pretty good bands. The constant sampling from horror movies/religious performances was also old hat—this album is Ministry Lite, borrowing quite heavily from Al Jorgensen’s look and sound, but without the menace. Even the title is just cringingly edgelordly.

That’s not to say that the band Rob Zombie put together wasn’t good at creating a facsimile of sincere, boots-on-the-ground heavy metal. The opening of “I am Legend” is actually pretty creative, and veers from the pentatonic model that this album otherwise clings to like a shot at an appearance on Jerry Springer. As I forced myself to listen to every second of every song this morning, I found that there were moments that were genuinely groovy…”Soul Crusher” has some “Master of Puppets” era riffage on it that I could dig. But as soon as I would think, “This is OK”, the same thing would ruin it. That thing is Rob Zombie.

By far the worst thing about White Zombie is Rob Zombie. There. I said it. Rob Zombie is a shitty vocalist, and has no ability to modulate either pitch or volume. His monotonic grunts are only ever broken up by the flatted third, which is always the same word, “yeah”. Gargle gargle gargle gargle gargle gargle, YEAH!

No, Mr. Zombie. Please. No more.

If RZ sings “yeah” once on this album, he does it once a second. My friends and I once tried to play a game in which each person had to do a shot of beer every time someone said “fuck” in the film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross. You can’t really pour them fast enough, you make a mess, and its better just to enjoy the goddamned film without the silly games. By the end of the album, I wish I had been taking a shot of drano every time Zombie sings “yeah”. White Zombie was a manufactured, NY-straight to the arena type band that was made to make people think they were into metal, without having to be. Somebody put sunglasses on a muppet.

Although FWIW, I think Zombie’s horror movies are dope.

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94. Deafheaven, ‘Sunbather’ (2013)

The Balkanization of metal into genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub genres, is a bit of an elephant in the room. The taxonomist in me thinks classification is fun and worthwhile. The musician not so much. I like lots of different kinds of music, and it follows that I like lots of different kinds of metal. I’m attracted to some of the weirder more experimental groups, and recently I’ve been way into this guy out of Kentucky, Panopticon, who blends trve kvlt Black Metal with Americana beautifully. It isn’t schtick. It works, and the result is November sunset on the edge of Appalachia. It’s beautiful and haunting, but leaves a bruise. Panopticon doesn’t have an album on this list*, but I mention it because it opened my ears to atmospheric metal**—song structures are long and meandering, the focus tends to be on the music, and not so much the lyrics. Vocals may be present, but are often buried in the mix. I like it. I can work and listen atmospheric metal without being distracted, and I find that I am also genuinely rewarded when I turn my full attention to some of these albums. The next album has been on heavy rotation on my Spotify for about a year now, and is a great introduction to this kind of music for anyone interested.

Deafheaven don’t like to be classified as black metal, and I understand their resistance to the label. Lyrical and emotional themes of this album are a continent away from the grim, forested fjords of Scandinavia; rather, they are set in the grim, uniform disappointment of the American suburb. Where black metal moves in a cold world of impenetrable darkness, Sunbather is an album paralyzed by blinding waves of sunlight, too stroked-out to reach for the ephemeral joys of ownership.

That being said, if you don’t like black metal, you won’t like this album, with its impenetrable walls of sound, shrieksing*** vocals, blast beats, and buzzsaw guitars. The album expands far beyond these tropes. The brooding “Windows” includes none of those elements. The tight discordances of black metal are certainly present, but often dissolve into consonant, pretty melodies, with slower strummy sections and countermelody, like on the title track, “Sunbather” (which is my favorite track). The break in “The Pecan Tree” features a duet of guitars that could have been from an early 1980s Cure album. This is not to say that the black metal segments aren’t excellent or authentic— its really good black metal. It’s just that, like Panopticon, this band manages to blend TKNBM with other musical elements, smoothly and organically. The transitions are lovely. This is a beautiful, powerful album, and it deserves a place on this list

*“Scars of Man on a Once Nameless Wilderness I” should be.

**Commonly called shoe gaze.

***This was a typo, but it has a Smeagol twist, which I think is more appropriate to how the vocals actually sound.

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95. Dream Theater, ‘Images and Words’ (1992).

About 17 years ago, I was in a band with two of the best musicians I have ever known. We were a three-piece, with my brother William on bass guitar, and Kris Games on drums. To this day, with my own meager chops I don’t know how on earth I was allowed to play guitar with these two genuises. One weekend we had a show in Pittsburgh. William (my usual ride) had been in Baltimore and was going to meet us at the venue. So I rode with Kris Games, because I did not have wheels of my own.

Games and I had very different lives; he was a father, a successful business owner, and had a ride. I was nearly finished with graduate school, couldn’t afford to pay attention much less raise a child, and did not have a ride. He was into all kinds of music that was foreign to me—I knew that some of it was jazz, which is to me still a murky, undiscovered country. I was into punk rock and hardcore at the time, and not really much else. We had been in bands together at this point for maybe six years, and saw each at least once a week. Up until that point I don’t know that we ever talked about anything other than the music we wrote together. That wasn’t a bad thing because we both cared a lot about our music. But I was about to take a three-hour ride with a musician for whom I had (and still have) the utmost respect*, but didn’t otherwise know that well.

I was excited to get to know him better. Anyway, as we left my home in his packed-to-the-ceiling Mistubishi, he popped in a CD of a band I had never heard before—Dream Theater. I had listened to plenty of thrash metal, but this album was something different. It was more intricate…there was a level of sophistication to the music that did very little to undermine its grim and aggressive tone. It was heavy and dark, but also complex and seething. I remember really enjoying the album. We mostly talked about music on that trip, anyway. The lesson is that shared love of music is a fine thing to build a friendship on.

I was excited to reach this album on the Rolling Stones top 100 list because of that trip. I hadn’t thought much about Dream Theater since then, but I had good memories of listening to the drums which were from outer space, much like they were in my band. As it turns out, this album wasn’t the album we listened to one fall evening on I-70 East. That album likely was 2003’s “Train of Thought”. The album on Rolling Stone’s list is completely different, and not in a wonderful and refreshing way.

This album provided the music for every montage in every Jean Claude Van Damme movie ever. Its all on there…all of the training montages, the love scene with journalist Janice Kent, the montage where VD** wanders about Bangkok, unsure of himself and heartbroken over his paralyzed brother, the montage of the forbidden love between Erik and Mylee the niece of the Muay Thai master Xian Chow. Etcetera. If music has a smell, this album is Drakkar Noire. If lip herp had a soundtrack, it would be “Images and Words”.

But this album is so much more than VD and man-smell. Between greasy conventional arena-style anthems, there are long segments of extensive and highly coordinated noodling. The album is peppered with fragmented albeit spacey melodies, outlandish harmonies, and abrupt tempo and time signature changes. These segments aren’t tonally or rhythmically coherent enough to be anthemic, and as random as they may sound, are so carefully coordinated that they cannot be in the least bit random. But rather than inspiring head-banging, they tend to leave one feeling confused and drained, the way one feels when they are searching a desktop for some item, and realize that they have forgotten what they are searching for.

Why is this on a best *metal* album list, I wondered? Every once-in-a-while, the tone becomes menacing, hinting at brutality to come. Portions of “Metropolis Part I: The Miracle and the Sleeper” and “Under a Glass Moon” are jagged and brooding, indicating in no uncertain terms that asskicking is about to start. But it doesn’t start. Instead, the spirit of metal gets distracted by sometheing shiny offstage, and the band get back to what they clearly love best– earnestly playing who-knows-what for who-knows-what-reason. And there is a metric shit-ton of cheesie synth, and one extended soprano sax solo…something that metal heads are known to relish.

That isn’t to say that the core of the band (bass/drums/guitar) don’t exhibit a fuckton of virtuosity, because that is what I believe the noodle sections were created to show the listener. This band practices its ass off. The drummer must be lowered into his kit from two stories up. There are 14 strings on the bass. The guitarist never uses a chord that isn’t followed by an academic degree (sus4, dim/maj#7, etc.), and he knows what these degrees mean. Is virtuosity cool on its own? Of course. I used to dig the kind of weird shit Games and Will would pull out of their asses; impossible inversions, uncounted stops, and bizarre-ass fills. Did Will and Games ever allow virtuosity to interfere with a song? Nope. Did I enjoy listening to this album? I did not. But I may give that other Dream Theater album a listen when I’m done.

*He has all of the skills of a great drummer; quick hands and feet, fantastic sense of tempo and rhythm, and both dynamic and stylistic range. Beyond that, he has a great ear; he listens and adapts to changes that come as a song develops. He was never a beat keeper, but a writer—involved completely with song structure and mood. He also could sing harmony, something I didn’t know for the first…IDK…4 years that we worked together.

**A revelation

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96. Kvelertak, ‘Meir’ (2013)

Had I been alive in 1969, I would have been a follower of bands like MC5 and the Stooges. The took something that was already good (Hendrix/Who era rock’n’roll) and added some energy to it. They played music that was a little faster, a little harder, a bit wilder, and way sweatier. I do my best to avoid describing albums by comparing them to other albums. Here, the comparison is going to happen, because this album is clearly the product of many influences, that ignoring as much would be a strain. The way that this album layers the influences is really unique, and the their sound is unmistakably unique.

This is an album that I never heard of, by a band that I never heard of, and so I decided to listen with fresh ears, having done any research at all. It is very hard for me to not google shit, so after my 4th listen straight through this album, I was relieved to be reunited with the world of information. I had so many questions. Kvelertak means “Stranglehold”, and Meir means “More”, both apt names, because this album is like a brawl in a bouncy house, BUT WITH MORE STRANGLING. The songs are energetic and jarring, but often really melodic also. Some of the solos sound like they were written and performed by Brian May (listen to Bruane Brenn for one of those). On other hand, these guys are Norwegian, and have bought into the legacy of brutality. Erlend Hjelvik, the vocalist at the time of recording, can scream like Nocturno, but is also capable of roaring like Ken Casey, or shrieking in the style of Quorthorn. What you won’t hear on this album is a note uttered in anything less than full paroxysm of vein-stressing rage. The hit on this album IMHO is track 9, “Undertro*” which somehow manages to include some really dark metal chuggery, broken up by those tight little discordances favored by bands like Mayhem. Then about 3 minutes in, they leave the blacker modes behind and rewrite the riff-motif in a pentatonic, turning the end of the song into an AC/DC-like anthem. Anyway, this whole album is going onto my fave metal mix.

*If this means anything, the internet doesn’t know.

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97. Gojira, ‘From Mars to Sirius’ (2005)

I’m familiar with the next album, but have only listened to it in bits and pieces. On mixes and whatnot. This album is like Dark Side of the Moon or Graceland. You have to swallow it whole. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for days, trying to make up my mind about what I want to say about it. It shouldn’t be hard because I enjoy it, but its also taken me down a little bit of a rabbit hole. I’m going to try not to refer to songs, but review the album as a whole.

This album is CLEARLY inspired by the power of nature. So am I. I dig the natural world hardcore. I’ve been drawn to other such music. In metal, I’m thinking primarily of TNBM. Corpse painted leather-and-nail, bullet-belt-bound weirdos raised in the boreal forests of Scandinavia have a very different view of the natural world than I do. For them nature is bleak, cold, and hungry. Their music (when performed expertly) reflects this narrow view.

Here’s a rabbit hole. Discordance is a part of all metal…think of the first three notes on the first metal song ever recorded*— tonic, octave, tritone. The use of tritone on its own isn’t always so off-putting. The opening sequence of The Simpsons theme song or West Side Story’s “Maria” use the tritone between the tonic and the fifth, and it provides tension with immediate resolution. However, ending on the tritone, and letting that fucker squeal and ring, creates a sense of foreboding. Its malignant. That’s largely how melody works in metal.

TNBM bands, as much as any, include engineered discordance to create an atmosphere of darkness (or maybe grimness is what I’m after). Getting back to my point, though, their narrow view of the natural world results in really narrow intervals; tight little chords with tons of discordance packed within the space of an octave. And I contrast this with “From Mars to Sirus” because quantitatively, Gojira is using all of the discordance that TNBM bands use, but arranging it over very large intervals (first to ninth is a predominant theme on this album), and this reflects an expansive interpretation of the natural world. The world of Gojira isn’t “The Mist by the Hills” but the oceans of the world, the entire sky, and event horizons. More than most extreme metal albums, the low end is super-present in the mix, and provides a stillness—like that of the deep ocean or the vast sky—, that serves as the backdrop of the tempest of the high end. For sure this album has lots of tempest: thunderous guitar chuggery with diving pinch-harmonic lightning, heaving riffs, and some really busy kickwork. In the end, it’s the use of expansive discordant intervals that really sells this album, for me anyway. Though I haven’t been through the entire list, I think Rolling Stone has well under-ranked this album. I would put it in my top 20. Maybe higher. I probably need to listen to it 6-12 more times before my mind is made up.

Also, there are whale songs. Also, the band is French.

* “Black Sabbath” on Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath.

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98. Sunn O))), ‘Monoliths & Dimensions’ (2009)

There are people who can lie on their backs and watch clouds all day long. There are also people who appreciate the sound of a humming guitar. I’m both, and I love the next album.

I would be surprised if there were a more experimental album on this list*. Sun O))) is more of a project than a band, consisting of two core members, but bringing in other musicians for shows and recordings. Some notable things about “Monoliths and Dimensions”:

  • This album credits 33 musicians other than core members Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson.
  • It consists of only 4 songs but clocks in at almost 54 minutes.
  • It is almost entirely devoid of percussion, and what percussion it has is not anything you’d call beat-keeping.

As with Evanescence’s “Fallen”, this is also not what I’ve come to expect from metal, but for different reasons. This album reminds me so much more of the work of John Cage, Ben Johnston, or Frank Zappa than it does of Metallica, Obituary, or Venom. It is really fucking out there. Each song includes sort of a basso continuo: a heavily distorted guitar and bass combo playing a slow**, droning, (seemingly) formless, series of ringing notes. I say (seemingly) because over time, these notes coalesce into slow, drifting patterns, like clouds over a the moon at night.

Fittingly, the first track (Aghartha) is a dark mediation on just that —clouds from what I can catch—its not unlike hearing Debussy’s Nocturne, after having been kicked in the junk 30 times and left to die alone. This basso continuo lasts for a little more than 6 minutes before the deep, croaking distinctly Hungarian voice of Atilla Csihar offers the narrative. Slowly the guitar and bass are replaced by screeching strings, brought up so slowly in the mix that the transition isn’t easily detectable. Other instruments fade in an out as well, including piano, some very light percussion, horns, ending with what sounds like the buzzing of flies on a corpse and the tinkle of water. Big Church is a slow, terrifying walk to the executioner. It features choral elements – the voices of women arranged in a series of incredibly tense chords, over some sort of medieval chant, breaks with church bells, and always the slow churn of heavily distorted guitar and bass. Hunting and gathering again features Attila Csihar subterranean rasp, a full chorus used only intermittently, and a horn section pounding dark chords like Vincent Price’s favorite pipe organist. My favorite track is Alice. Over its 16 minute span, dicordant guitars and horns (and eventually scattered woodwinds) eventually find an understanding. In that understanding the only prettiness on the album emerges in slow revelation. The discordance isn’t so much replaced by concordance but becomes it by imperceptible degrees of change. It isn’t unlike sculpture, the form becoming discernible only after all the little unnecessary pieces are knocked away.

*I will be completely surprised by Naked City’s ‘Torture Garden’

**The author tried his best to limit his use of the word “slow” and its variants. Still, look.

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99. Evanescence, ‘Fallen’ (2003)

OK. So I’m only on the second album on the Rolling Stone’s best 100 metal albums of all time, and I kind of don’t know what to do with it. It raises a question that is not uncomfortable, but boring: who thought this was metal? On one hand, I’ve had enough discussions of semantics to realize how unimportant such discussions really are. On the other hand, I wouldn’t voluntarily listen to Rolling Stone’s 100 best jazz albums of all time, or Whatever Magazine of Country Music’s 100 best country albums of all time. That’s not a rip on jazz or country as music–I don’t have the ear for them, and wouldn’t have fun listening. Nonetheless, I can’t just ignore the fact that few metal heads consider all albums on the list as representative. “This ain’t metal” is hardly an interesting criticism of a band, but more a “wtf” directed at Rolling Stone. Anyway.

This album is definitely dipping a little toe into mainstream metal, being rife with guitar chuggery, and even what I would defend as a bona-fide riff on “Whisper”. Far more notable than the metal content of the album is that it features a lead singer who is in fact a woman*. I don’t know how many other albums on this list feature a woman lead singer, and so I have to give it a thumbs up for that. The vocal melodies are consistently clean, strong, and do not budge from anthemic minor key goth threnody. The second track, “Bring Me to Life” features a male vocalist, who intersperses her melodies with rap-style ejaculations–fucking awful. I steeled myself against the possibility that this would continue through the album, but mercifully, such interjections are well enough dispersed to be bearable. There are two things that will prevent me from listening to this album again. First, I would have liked a little more variation. The songs all sound pretty much the same, they range in tempo from slowish to slow, each features a segment of introspective melody/synth accompaniment, framed by turgid djenting, and always a four-chord minor chorus that tends to soar a bit on the vocal side. Second, the songs are concerned with lyrical themes relevant to young adults that I just don’t give a crap about because I’m old. Teen drama has a place in this world, but not on my spotify play lists.So hows that for a pretty tortured review?

*Metal tends to be pretty dude dominated, which is unfortunate. I’m going to try to keep this in mind, as misogyny isn’t unknown in these circles. Or any circles, really.

100. Avenged Sevenfold, ‘City of Evil’ (2005)

This is a band that I’ve seen around, but had never given the time of day to. I’m not sure how I feel about this album. On one side, this is clearly a band with chops. The songs remind me of SWBHM* with a strong pop-punk influence. That might just be the vocals. The song structures are unconventional, but the tunes are utterly orthodox. Which isn’t to say they don’t mix it up pretty well, making expert use of many metal tropes. High points include the pretty acoustic part at the end of “Sidewinder” and the strange (and I think out of place) segue from the orchestral break in “The Wicked End”. Often, the downside of clean vocals in metal is is that you can hear the lyrics. I know a lot of people really enjoy the kind of introspective lyrics on songs like “Betrayed”, but they leave me clammy (that’s the pop-punk influence). If the music sounds badass, the lyrics probably should too. “Sometimes I cry thinking my future looks so bleak”? Not my cup of tea in the end.

*Second Wave British Heavy Metal

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